Heartbreak, disease and death are an integral part of life. No one can deny that. In television, these are the things that create drama or conflict. The Berena break-up created a lot of drama not just on Holby City but also among the fans of the fictional couple. Not all of it in a good way. While there are hints that the couple might be headed for a reunion in the future, a kiss-and-make-up solution is not one that will paper over the ghastly mess the BBC has made of the representation
In a perfect world, their parting was amicable—the best break-up you could hope for, so to speak, especially when one of the actors is unable to commit full-time to the role. Two independent, strong-willed, ambitious individuals, who happen to be women and queer, deciding that they can’t make it work because they want different things in life should have been a positive step towards lesbian representation, not to mention that of women, on television, right? It should’ve been welcomed by all Berena fans unanimously, yeah? They should’ve been showering Holby City with more awards and writing heartfelt odes to both the Berena story and the creators. Correct? So why is a significant section of these fans up in arms? Why do they feel betrayed?
Are we crazy-eyed lesbians so used to criticising bad representation that we can’t see a good one when it’s staring us right in the face?
Lesbian fans of Holby City feel let down not by the split in itself—though that did not help—but the way that it was done.
We all know that the BBC has a chequered history with positive lesbian representation. A case in point being Last Tango in Halifax, where a black lesbian was killed in an accident the day after she married her partner. It is possible that the BBC learned only one lesson, though undoubtedly key, from the backlash on this storyline: good representation equals not killing off a lesbian character. This understanding was perhaps bolstered by the long trending #BuryYourGays campaign. Therefore, in order to avoid a tragic ending in more ways than one, they let them walk into the sunset separately, in directions of their own choosing.
Steeped in the arrogance of the mainstream, Holby City believed they had it all figured out, which led to them making grand promises of giving the Berena story the responsible representation it deserved.
What they didn’t realise, which they might have done if they had bothered to include a lesbian pop culture expert on their team, is that discrimination cannot be addressed in one fell swoop. It is a layered, nuanced and complicated phenomenon that needs to be handled with a lot of care and sensitivity. If it’s not, one ends up reinforcing the same old damaging stereotypes. And that’s what the crux of the problem is.
What are these stereotypes that Holby City let slip in in their narrative?
The most harmful one, which is the most prevalent too, is that romantic love between women can never take precedence over other factors influencing their lives. And even if it does, the love is too flimsy and fickle to understand real commitment. In the case of Berena, Serena prioritised her friends and family when she decided to stay in Holby, while Bernie prioritised her career and her zest for adventure when she returned to Nairobi. Nevertheless, the two of them soldiered on in a long-distance relationship. When Bernie realised how miserable and lonely this was making both of them, she chose to leave her dream job so that she and Serena could make a proper go of it. In other words, Bernie eventually prioritised love. And then they broke up—because Serena couldn’t picture Bernie pushing her grand-niece on a swing. Go figure!
Serena’s infidelity also reeks of the same prejudice of the lack of seriousness in lesbian relationships. Her feelings of loneliness and attraction for a junior colleague carried far more import than her commitment to Bernie. It was implied in the break-up episode that Bernie too hadn’t honoured the commitment, thereby turning the “for eternity” sentiment nothing more than a heat-of-the-moment declaration to be forgotten as soon as one’s partner was out of sight.
Infidelity and promiscuity are in and of themselves also tropes commonly associated with lesbian representation. Behind them is the deep-seated homophobic belief that lesbians only want to have sex. Curiously, sex between women is also not considered real sex and therefore isn’t cheating. Infidelity was a big deal for Serena only when she was with Edward, a man. She obviously didn’t think that the same rules applied when she was with Bernie.
Even if one were to believe that their intentions were noble, that their hearts were in the right place, Holby City have messed up. And if one were to go by the reaction of some of their cast and crew to the criticism, it is perhaps futile to expect an acknowledgement of the mistake or even an attempt to somehow address it. In any case, whatever the creators decide to do, harm has already been done. A fresh pile of rubbish has been dumped on top an already overflowing garbage dump of lesbian representation, and the stink is reaching beyond the high heaven.